Thursday, November 06, 2014

Brainwavz S0: Smooth 0perator





Intro


TL;DR: The Brainwavz S0 offers a smooth, versatile package that just about anyone can enjoy.

First of all, I would like to thank Audrey (@Salsera) and the Brainwavz team for giving me the opportunity to write this review for their latest IEMs (which, naturally, is the Brainwavz S0). Second, I would like to clarify that I was neither paid to write this review (except for me being given this review sample), nor am I an affiliate of Brainwavz or any of its staff. All opinions expressed in the following review are my own unless otherwise specified, and as it is an opinion, please take it with a grain of salt.Also, the unit I have received for review is the final production version, complete and in its retail packaging. So basically, what you see (in this review, anyway) is what you get.

Over the past two months, my ears have been blessed with Brainwavz, Brainwavz, and only Brainwavz. Why? Because over my past two years in this audiophile journey, my ears have never been more satisfied than with their IEMs. From the bass-heavyS5, to the smooth and sweetR3, I’ve been given a taste of the very best of Brainwavz’ creations. And now, Audrey has given me the chance to sample their newest release has them taking a step back in price with the youngest brother of the single dynamic S-series, the S0 (ZERO).

Now, let’s see if the new kid in town has what it takes to step up to its big brothers – and maybe even the huge battlefield of IEMs its price. Interested? Let’s move on.


== Aesthetics ==

Packaging, Accessories


As a member of the S-series of IEMs, the Brainwavz S0 comes in standard rectangular retail packaging that looks exactly like the S5’s packaging, from the form factor, to the opening front panel, and even the window inside. Behind the front panel is a quick summary of Brainwavz’ roots, as well as cross-sections of 3 key parts of the package – namely the IEMs’ housings, the included Comply S-400 foam tips, and the cable. At the back of the box is a short description of the IEMs, specifications, a list of accessories, and a compatibility list for the 3.5mm connector (not that audiophiles need it, although I would see how less savvy consumers will find this useful).

Once you open the box, you get to take out the S0 (the cable of which leads into the small hard carry case), housed in a clear plastic mold. It’s really just your regular retail packaging, to be honest. Once you take out the S0 from its mold and open up the carry case, you see the S0’s cable bound in a very neat Velcro strap (a little bit that I hardly found in the Brainwavz R3), along with its other accessories in the pockets inside.

I have to say, I’m really impressed with what Brainwavz offers with the 50-buck S0, as they come with a similarly generous amount of accessories just like the S5 and the R3 I reviewed before it – but even then, those were at least twice the price of the S0. In the S0 package, you get nine pairs of eartips – 3 translucent grey/red eartips in S/M/L, 3 pairs of black colour-coded eartips in S/M/L (an equivalent to the black tips of the S5 and R3, albeit with even narrower nozzles), double- and triple-flange tips like the S5 and R3, and a pair of Comply S-400 tips. After that, you have the carry case, which is again the same as the ones in the S5 and R3, and a shirt clip, which only recently was being sent out with each of their IEMs now. Not that I needed one with the S5 and R3; it’s still a welcome addition nonetheless. The only thing that’s missing from this package is the 6.3mm (1/4”) adapter – although I could assume the shirt clip replaced it in the S0. Oh yeah, don’t forget the 1-year warranty card and instruction manual.

EDIT: The folks at Brainwavz changed up their warranty policies as of Q4 2015, so all new pairs of the Brainwavz S0 (and pretty much every other earphone they sell) comes with a 2-year warranty.


Design, Build, Microphonics


A far cry from what I’ve seen from Brainwavz’ IEM designs, the Brainwavz S0 employs an unusually conventional design, with a smooth, tapered housing. There are no weird angles or funky shapes here; just a simple, round, conical earpiece. Though this offers nothing in the way of getting admiration (or confusion) from anyone you show it to, Brainwavz makes up for it by making the L and R markings a lot easier to find – although I find it rather sad the Brainwavz logo was pushed aside to the back of the housings where the vent is (I would prefer it on the opposite side of the L and R markings like the S5).




Although the S0 does seem very orthodox (which makes them stand out from the rest of the Brainwavz lineup) in terms of looks, they fit in perfectly with Brainwavz’ other IEMs in the build department. As always, the never fail to impress me with their solid aluminum housings that exude strength and reliability. The rest of the build is no slouch, either – the flat cable (now black instead of grey), the connector, and the strain relief on the housings (now red instead of grey) were all adopted from its older brother, the S5. The Y-split, however, was completely redesigned and completely streamlined, with the cables now pressing together when you straighten them out with the cable cinch. Another major improvement is the lack of driver flex when putting on the S0. As I’ve found from Brainwavz time and time again, they’ve designed the S0 very well, and I don’t think I could ask for much more.

However, there was a little something that sneaked into the package having adopted some of the S5’s characteristics – and that is microphonics. To my experience, flat cables do tend to be more microphonic than most round cables (although there are a few exceptions), but I didn’t have any complaints with microphonics in the S5 at all.


Fit, Comfort, Isolation



This is where the fit is factored in. As you might have already noticed, the S0 is designed to be worn straight down, and not around-the-ear like its older brothers (the S1 and S5, if you didn’t know). Normally, when you wear an IEM around-the-ear, a lot of cable noise is deadened thanks to the vibrations having to pass through the outer ear, which will absorb most of that. Now, when you wear it straight down, the cable will not have to pass around the outer ear, sending any noise in the cable straight to your ears. And that means trouble.


Cable noise complaints aside, I find the S0 to be perfectly easy to fit. It’s literally plug-and-play, thanks to its simple housing. If the default tips don’t fit you, Brainwavz also has you covered with 8 other pairs of eartips. You really can’t complain about anything there. But hey, nothing is perfect, so let me throw in a downside. Despite being designed to be worn straight-down, it is possible to wear the Brainwavz S0 around-the-ear, but fit gets a little iffy at first. With a little practice (and maybe a tip roll) you should be able to get a secure fit and seal.

Wearing straight-down, comfort is equally straightforward, which, of course, is a good thing. No broken seals, no unusual wearing styles; just plug and play. As with all IEMs, isolation is a varying factor that partly depends on the eartips you use. In this regard, they can go from below average to great. However, with stock tips, I found them to be rather ‘meh’ as they didn’t really drown out the sound much unlike the S5 (and even the R3, to some extent). It’s nothing a simple tip roll can’t fix, though.


== Sound ==

Specifications


Headphone Type
Closed-back, vented in-ear monitor (straight down, around-the-ear)
Driver Type
9 mm dynamic, neodymium magnets, CCAW voice coil
Frequency Response
18 Hz – 18 kHz
Rated Input Power
10 mW
Sensitivity
100 dB @ 1 mW
Impedance
16 Ω
Weight
N/A
Cable
1.2 m (4 ft.) flat Y-cord, OFC
Connector
3.5 mm (1/8”) gold-plated straight TRS
Accessories
Hard carrying case
Shirt Clip
6 sets silicone single-flange eartips (gray S/M/L + black S/M/L)
1 set silicone double-flange eartips
1 set silicone triple-flange eartips
1 set Comply S400 premium foam eartips


Equipment, Burn-in

As sources, I will be using my iPad 3 and PC through Headphone-Out, running unamped. In the more in-depth amp test, I will be using a Yamaha RX-V359 5.1 receiver through headphone-out. For the EQ test, I will be using Viper4Windows on the PC and the EQu app on the iPad. As always, test tracks are located here for reference. The eartips I’m using for the review are the included double-flange eartips, as well as the double-flange MEElectronics M9 eartips. Also, as per review protocol, the Brainwavz S0 was burned-in for a minimum of 100 hours prior to writing this review, with mostly music and some games to the side.

To make the sound review relatively easier to follow, I’ve listed down a few of the tracks I felt were worth mentioning in the review for more specific reference purposes:

  • Daft PunkGet Lucky, Lose Yourself to Dance: The former is probably one of my most-used (if not the most used outright) test track in my playlist. I personally know it enough that I could be able to determine an IEM’s basic signature from this track alone. The latter track is another of my most-used test tracks, used to test the balance of bass weight vs. accuracy.

  • Eagles Hotel California (Hell Freezes Over): My prime test track for testing stereo imaging and overall proficiency with live recordings.

  • Connecticut Early Music Festival, Igor Kipnis A. Vivaldi: The Four Seasons, Winter (Mov. 1): Forgive me for the really long artist and title line; it’s really how it goes. Anyway, this track is my main classical track to test the midrange, soundstage, and imaging.

  • Noisestorm Surge: To be frank, I don’t strictly use this track to test bass power. In fact, I have a playlist devoted to that purpose. I just thought I chose this particular track since I really, really like it.
    Again, I would like to stress that my opinions in the review are to be taken with a grain of salt. Now, without further ado, let’s get right down to the sound!


    Sound Quality


    The very first time I put these on, I was blown away. They sounded great. What's more, they sounded great whether I was listening to classical pieces or EDM. But over time, as I began to listen closer, I began to notice things that detracted from my first impression. Let's take a look.


    First of all, we have the bass. It punches down hard and deep. It's pretty strong, but not Brainwavz S5-strong. Because of this leaner presentation of the bass, this allows the S0 to have better tonal accuracy and speed compared to the S5, which can and will bunch up notes in bass-heavy tracks (i.e. Lose Yourself to Dance). So far, so good, right? Let's continue. The S0's midrange is honestly pretty good and strikes a balance between the S5's warmth and the R3's clarity and accuracy. However, being part of the bass-enhanced S family, the balance leans more towards the S5. I'm not complaining, though -- they almost seem to go hand-in-hand with the bass to adjust depending on the type of music you're listening to. Of course, this is simply a vivid description of my own perception, so again take this with a grain of salt.

    Now, we're onto the treble. Despite the rest of the signature being all well, I honestly feel the treble ruins the whole signature for me. Now, I know, I'm exaggerating a little bit, but it does tilt the whole signature into something not so favorable to my ears. The S0's treble inherits much of the characteristics of the R3, which means they sound polite and laid-back. Now, I don't have anything against laid-back treble, but the rest of the signature doesn't add up well together. The overall signature, in a nutshell, sounds rather dark because of the polite treble. Sure, they may be non-fatiguing and all, but I'm rather dismayed to be listening to this rather dark signature, which I do not like at all. The midrange as a result sounds rather veiled in comparison to the S5 and R3. The treble for me is a pretty epic fail on Brainwavz' part, seeing as how it would've been an amazing IEM. I mean, even the soundstage and imaging are pretty good, with a decently-sized soundstage (similar to the S5) and great positional accuracy.

    But though I may be just focusing on a lot of negatives here, the whole sonic package still had this positive quality to them I couldn't really put my finger on. So, I laid off on listening to it for the night, and the next day, I listened to them, and BOOM. I came to a sudden realization: I'd been listening to them wrong.

    The Brainwavz S0, as it turns out, sounds great – no, they sound amazing – when you were looking at the big picture, and not focusing on the little things. When I listened to the S0s from that perspective, the sound somehow all came together into one amazing IEM. It was then I recalled how great they were when I first listened to them. The Brainwavz S0 doesn’t dress to impress. It doesn’t try to wow you with unreal clarity or heart-pumping bass. The S0 is there to make you enjoy music, not analyze it. And, as an audiophile, that's exactly what we're here for.


    Gaming, Movies

    I haven’t been playing FPS games lately, but I can say for certain that the S0 is perfectly game-ready. It’s got great imaging for positional audio, and should give you that extra edge in a Battlefield 4 match. As for movies, well, I haven’t been watching movies lately either, but rest assured they should do perfectly fine in that regard as well.


    EQ, Amping

    Though I’ve used EQ extensively in the past, I am now rather averse to it and avoid using EQ whenever I can. However, I can make an exception when I review IEMs. With the S0, I feel that there is a clear deficiency of sparkle in the treble (which is only apparent now because of the enhanced bass). A “Treble Booster” preset in the iOS system EQ works, but it doesn’t really improve much. You will need a configurable EQ app here to be able to get somewhere. With a little amplification, I didn’t really notice any game-changing differences. But hey, the S0 is a very easy-to-drive IEM. Even with a cheap MP3 player like the Sansa Clip, the S0 will be able to run out of it just fine.


    Value


    At the low, low price of only $50, you get probably one of the best packages I’ve ever seen from Brainwavz. You get a nice assortment of accessories, a solid build, a very straightforward fit, and a sound that’s easy to like. At $50, what's not to like?


    Comparison


    Versus Brainwavz S5 ($100):
    With some quick A/B tests, I realized this wasn’t going to be as easy of a comparison as I thought. The Brainwavz S5 is an IEM “engineered for maximum fun-ness,” as Apple liked to advertise their iPod Touches. It’s got visceral bass punch with extension so far unbeaten with my current inventory of IEMs, a recessed (but still pretty clear) midrange, and treble that sparkles and shines (though it tends to be sibilant).

    However, as much as Brainwavz and others say these are the little brothers of the S5 (and they are), sound-wise I would have to disagree. The S0’s sound signature is smooth, cool, and laid-back – nothing like the party-all-night attitude of the S5. In fact, the S0 sounds a lot like an improved R3 instead. Right now, I’m finding it hard to find out which I like over the other. When both are placed head-to-head (rather, ear-to-ear), the S0 sounds veiled in comparison to the bright treble of the S5 – even in classical recordings. On the other hand, the S0 is smooth, relaxing, and hardly non-fatiguing, which is a good thing in its own way.

    If I were hard-pressed to keep only one, however, I would probably pick the S5. Yes, I know, I know; the S0 is the more ‘audiophile’ choice. But what does it matter? The S5 is fun, lively, and gets me up off my feet every time. Although the S0 apparently is more technically capable, I find the S5 to be perfectly suitable for my music preferences.


    Versus Brainwavz R3 ($130):
    This comparison was a little hard for me to do due to the R3’s higher impedance which makes them significantly quieter, rendering me unable to review them ear-to-ear. However, I do have a fairly good grasp of both of their sound signatures to allow me to write a fairly detailed comparison.

    The Brainwavz R3 is a mid-centric IEM; that goes without a doubt. They have a sweet, balanced signature with a polite treble which makes them sound nice and smooth. However, the S0 takes things a little bit further. The S0 has a powerful, well-rounded low end which the R3 fails to catch up to in terms of power. This makes the S0 the clear winner in terms of the fun factor. On the other hand, the R3 wins in the rest of the signature with its midrange that rings nice and clear, and treble that, though polite, doesn’t sound veiled thanks to the lean bass and overall balance.

    In the end, picking one over the other is a no-brainer for me. I would very much pick the S0 over the R3 any day, because its smooth, fun, and well-rounded signature allows me to just jab them in my ears and happily enjoy anything that plays through them.


    == Conclusion ==


    I have to say, the S0 is probably one of the most well-rounded IEM packages I have ever seen, both from Brainwavz and from all of the IEMs I’ve reviewed so far. They have a very generous assortment of accessories, a great build that puts some IEMs twice its price to shame, and a sound that anyone can like. It’s not an IEM that will impress you with its awe-inspiring detail-whoring or anything of that sort, but it is an IEM you can rely on to give you great sound with music, games, or movies – all at the very competitive price of $50.

    In short, the Brainwavz S0 is a winner.

    Category
    Score
    Comment
    Packaging, Accessories
    8/10
    Despite the $50 price tag, Brainwavz’ trademark treasure trove of accessories still remains at your disposal, albeit with different tips than the higher-end models.
    Design, Build, Microphonics
    8/10
    Contrary to what I’ve seen with Brainwavz’ recent models, the S0 has a very conventional look to them. The build, however, is very Brainwavz. The straight-down design with the flat cable does make for some noticeable microphonics, but the included shirt clip is there to remedy that.
    Fit, Comfort, Isolation
    7/10
    The straight-down design makes them easily digestible for the consumer crowd. With a little getting used to it, you can also wear these around the ear. Comfort and isolation both vary based on the tips used, though.
    Microphone
    N/A
    No microphone? Nothing to see here, then. Move along!
    Bass
    8/10
    The Brainwavz S0 has a remarkably well-rounded bass for a bass-enhanced IEM. It’s big enough to satisfy mild bassheads, but is capable of taking a step back when the track doesn’t call for it.
    Midrange
    7/10
    The midrange is overall pretty good, and has a decent amount of clarity. Much to my surprise, they worked pretty well with both male and female vocals.
    Treble
    6.5/10
    The treble is a polite and laid-back, which makes the whole signature rather dark overall. However, they’re smooth, relaxing, and non-fatiguing.
    Presentation
    7/10

    Gaming
    7/10
    The pretty balanced signature and great positional accuracy makes them a solid choice for games.
    Movies
    7/10
    The TV shows I like to watch often have a lot of music in the background. Well, the S0 doesn’t fail to impress here.
    EQ, Amping
    7/10
    Amplification doesn’t really do much to the S0, but some EQ will really help to better the overall sound.
    Value
    8/10
    At $50, it’s really hard to not want to get this IEM.
    Total
    7.3/10
    Like I said earlier, the S0 is a winner for Brainwavz, with a very well-rounded package that somehow does everything just right.

    I do have a few suggestions to make for Brainwavz:
    • Improve treble crispness (maybe in a future model?)
    • Make the cable from the connector to the Y-split in line with the cable from the Y-split to the housings (like the S5) for better cable management (I’m pretty sure the slimmer Y-split is capable of accommodating this)
    Yep. Just two suggestions. I really don’t have any complaints about the S0 other than this.


    Shout-Outs, Gallery


    Again, I would like to thank Audrey and the Brainwavz team for again giving me this opportunity to review one of their fine products. I feel very humbled and honoured having been given this third IEM to review for them. Thanks again, you guys! I had a lot of fun reviewing these, and would no doubt be looking forward to the releases coming in the next year.

    I would also like to thank my sister, who has been taking the beautiful pictures for each of my reviews since the very first one. And now, here is a link to all of the pictures taken during the shoot, with a lot of other pictures not seen in this review (to shorten loading times). As always, any constructive criticism is welcome, and will help me to better write my future reviews.

    Finally, this is thatBeatsguy signing off; thanks for reading!


    Changelog

    12/23/14: Added a new scoring category (Presentation) to the score table on all reviews since the Brainwavz R3.
    12/20/14: Changed scoring.
    12/08/14: Fixed some typos. I really need to work on that.
    11/18/14: Added "vented" to Headphone Type in Specifications section.

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